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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
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High Court Rules Puerto Rico Is Not Sovereign

(CN) — Finding that Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereign, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that double jeopardy protects someone from being prosecuted by both the island commonwealth and the federal government for the same crime.

In a court petition filed last summer, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico asked the high court whether the commonwealth and the federal government are separate sovereigns for the purposes of the U.S. Constitution's double jeopardy clause.

The commonwealth calls it "the most important case on the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States since the establishment of the commonwealth in 1952," according to the certiorari petition.

A divided Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled in March 2015 that the double jeopardy clause prevents a person who has been tried, acquitted or convicted under federal law from being prosecuted for the same offense under Puerto Rico law. The commonwealth's high court found that Puerto Rico and the federal government are not "dual sovereigns."

Puerto Rico says the ruling was a mistake that strips the commonwealth of its authority to enforce its own criminal laws, according to its petition. It cites a law enacted by Congress in 1950 that gave Puerto Ricans the ability to "organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption," the petition states. Puerto Ricans approved the commonwealth's constitution in a 1952 referendum.

"It follows that the laws of Puerto Rico enacted pursuant to that constitution flow from sovereign authority delegated by the people of Puerto Rico, not from sovereign authority delegated by Congress," the commonwealth says. "The Puerto Rico Supreme Court's contrary conclusion is not only wrong, but deepens a direct and acknowledged circuit conflict on the specific question [of] whether the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the federal government are separate sovereigns for federal double jeopardy purposes."

The underlying case involves the 2008 indictment by Puerto Rico prosecutors of Luis Sanchez Valle on charges of the illegal sale of firearms and ammunition and illegal carrying of firearms. While that prosecution was pending, Valle was indicted by a federal jury for the illegal sale of firearms and ammunition.

Valle pleaded guilty to the federal charges and received a five-month prison sentence followed by house arrest and supervised release. He filed a motion to dismiss the Puerto Rico charges, which was granted by a trial court based on the double jeopardy clause.

A similar situation occurred with Valle's co-respondent Jaime Gomez Vazquez, according to court records. The commonwealth appealed both dismissals, and a Puerto Rico appeals court reversed the trial court decisions. But the Puerto Rico Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the commonwealth has no claim to sovereignty unless it becomes a state.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last October to review the case.

On Thursday, the high court ruled 6-2 that the Fifth Amendment's double jeopardy clause prevents Puerto Rico and the United States from each prosecuting someone "for the same conduct under equivalent criminal laws."

"The states are separate sovereigns from the federal government and from one another," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "A municipality cannot count as a sovereign distinct from a state, because it receives its power, in the first instance, from the state. And most pertinent here, this court concluded in the early 20th century that U.S. territories —including an earlier incarnation of Puerto Rico itself — are not sovereigns distinct from the United States."

When Puerto Rico "became a new kind of political entity" following the approval of its constitution in 1952, the question of dual sovereignty needed reexamining, according to the opinion. The Supreme Court found, however, that the end result is the same.

"Congress, in Public Law 600, authorized Puerto Rico's constitution-making process in the first instance, and Congress, in later legislation, both amended the draft charter and gave it the indispensable stamp of approval," Kagan wrote. "Put simply, Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges. That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico's prosecutors — as it is for the federal government's. The island's constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain."

Kagan was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

Thomas, in a separate opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, said he agrees that Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereign, but says he has "concerns about our precedents regarding Indian law" and disagrees with considering tribes separate sovereigns for the purpose of double jeopardy.

"Aside from this caveat, I join the court's opinion," Thomas wrote.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined.

"This history of statutes, language, organic acts, traditions, statements, and other actions, taken by all three branches of the federal government and by Puerto Rico, convinces me that the United States has entered into a compact one of the terms of which is that the 'source' of Puerto Rico's criminal law ceased to be the U. S. Congress and became Puerto Rico itself, its people, and its constitution," Breyer wrote.

The dissent continued, "The evidence of that grant of authority is far stronger than the evidence of congressional silence that led this court to conclude that Indian tribes maintained a similar sovereign authority. Indeed, it is difficult to see how we can conclude that the tribes do possess this authority but Puerto Rico does not."

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